If you had the chance to take a look at my shelves, you probably wouldn’t be able to establish what my favourite book genre is. In fact, I don’t tend to read a single genre. My reading taste covers fantasy, literary fiction, mysteries, classics, sci-fi, poetry… As I read different types of books, it is not a specific genre that catches my attention when I go book shopping. One of the many things that makes me curious about a book is its historical setting. I particularly like stories that take place during the Second World War and the Portuguese “Estado Novo”.
Some of the fiction books that tend to catch my eye are written by contemporary authors but are set around the time of these important historical events. Generally speaking, such books tend to examine real concerns through a fictional story. They help us remember that it is crucial not to make the same mistakes again, that humans are capable of both boundless monstrosities and great deeds (there are always those who rebel against the dark authoritarian regimes), and that war has an ugly face and terrible consequences.
The “Estado Novo” was an authoritarian corporatist regime, considered to be fascist, that lasted from 1933 to 1974 in Portugal. It was established by António Oliveira Salazar and, as many other dictatorships, had a political police force, in order to control dissidents, not only in Portugal, but also in the African colonies. Especially during the 1960s, many Portuguese evaded the country, for example to France, in order to avoid being called to fight in the colonial war or just to look for a better life. Some of the books that I read during the latest years have this reality as an historical setting.
In O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) by José Saramago, we are told what happens when Ricardo Reis (a character inspired by the Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym with the same name) returns to Portugal in 1935. The plot evolves with Salazar’s regime as a background, but there are also references to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Livro by José Luís Peixoto takes place during a later period of the dictatorship. Thousands of Portuguese left the country mainly during the 1960s and moved to France, facing a perilous and illegal journey. The tale of Adelaide and Ilídio, presented in the first part of this book, is used to illustrate the tribulations of that journey and the life of hard work that expected the Portuguese in France.
At the time of “Estado Novo”, Portugal still had colonies in Africa. Vinte e Zinco by Mia Couto takes place in Mozambique during the last days of the dictatorship and it was published in 1999 for the 25th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, which brought the regime to an end on the 25th of April in 1974. We get to know Lourenço, an inspector of the Political Police (PIDE), whose cruelty doesn’t stop his aunt from expressing feminist views and mingling with the native population.
Much has been written about the rise of Nazism, the Second World War and the Holocaust. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an extremely well-known book that is great at remembering the reader that during a time of huge injustices, exacerbated by hate and lack of freedom, it remains possible to aid victims of persecution and do what is right.
Atonement by Ian McEwan is set during three time periods, one of them being the years of the World War II. Death, cruelty and despair take over a novel that at first has as main focus the love story between Cecilia and Robbie, which is misunderstood by Briony. This was the first novel that I read by Ian McEwan, more or less eight years ago, and it remains one of my favourite books of all time.
As I enjoy novels that are set during the Second World War and that touch on the Holocaust, I thought I would love If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, but that wasn’t the case. I only thought the book was acceptable, though it’s definitely an important read. I learnt many details about the life on concentration camps and how it transformed people’s views about themselves. However, when I bought the book, I wasn’t aware that it was a memoir. I was expecting it to be a fictional work. So, I realised that I prefer it when an extremely harsh real situation is complemented by a fictional story.